Years before he sold the screenplay for the beloved romantic comedy “Brown Sugar,” Michael Elliot used to sit in movie theaters and count the number of trailers without any black people.
In May 1998, he sold his screenplay for “Brown Sugar” to Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film, directed by Rick Famuyiwa, hit theaters in 2002 and starred Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs as two longtime friends who share a love of hip-hop — and a mutual attraction that becomes impossible to ignore.
Elliot’s story was inspired by “Seven Days,” Mary J. Blige’s song about a platonic friendship that evolves into romance. But in an interview with The Washington Post, Elliot said he also sought to create a different type of romantic comedy — one that had successful black people at the center and was as much about love as it was funny.
For all of our ongoing discussions about the lack of diversity in American films, romantic comedies constitute a particularly fraught genre. Early rom-coms tended to overlook diversity completely (1984’s “Sixteen Candles” made a mockery of it), while later films became notorious for casting actors of color to play token best friends — if they included them at all.
In 2014, when Vulture named the “25 Best Romantic Comedies Since ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ ” the list omitted “Brown Sugar” and other classics such as “Love & Basketball,” “The Wood” and “The Best Man.” (Those films are also conspicuously absent from Wikipedia’s list of rom-coms.) Of the four, “Brown Sugar” most closely fits the romantic-comedy mold — the others skew slightly more dramatic — but they all helped usher in an era of films that told stories about black love.
Vulture’s list also neglected to include one of the biggest precursors to the wave of black rom-coms: Theodore Witcher’s 1997 film “Love Jones.” The film starred Larenz Tate and Nia Long as two young, black professionals who fall in love after meeting at a poetry night in Chicago. It achieved a modest box-office showing — just north of $12 million — but it remains an undeniable cult classic. A musical adaptation comes to Washington’s National Theatre next month.
“I love ‘Love Jones,’ and I felt we needed more movies like that,” Elliot said. After co-writing the screenplay for the 2002 comedy “Like Mike,” Elliot returned to the rom-com genre in 2010 with “Just Wright,” a film he had begun to write years earlier. The story cast rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah as a physical therapist who falls for one of her NBA clients, played by rapper Common. Although the film was not considered a commercial success, Elliot said he is proud that the film gave audiences images they were not used to seeing: a beautiful and professionally successful leading lady whose plus-size frame resembled most American women more than Latifah’s size-2 counterparts.
But Elliot notes that “Brown Sugar” and “Just Wright” account only for the romantic-comedy screenplays that he actually sold. Even after the success of “Brown Sugar” (which made more than $27 million domestically on an $8 million budget), he says it was hard to sell rom-coms led by black actors. He recalls one studio executive dismissing a pitch with something to the effect of “Love does not really resonate with black people. Comedy does.”
That dictum contains two assumptions that have been proved false many times over. Tate told Essence in 2012 that Witcher’s film had “gotten so big that people do poetry ‘Love Jones’ celebrations every single year, like Trekkies celebrate ‘Star Trek.’ ” The other misconception is that so-called mainstream audiences do not turn up for films featuring predominantly black casts.
“Jumping the Broom,” a 2011 romantic comedy starring Paula Patton, Loretta Devine and Angela Bassett, “overperformed” at the box office when it landed two spots behind Marvel juggernaut “Thor.” Despite an ensemble cast and a host of celebrity cameos, “Think Like A Man” shocked Hollywood when it opened to the tune of $33 million the following year. (A sequel was wisely made, and it dominated the box office in its 2014 debut.)
The surprise around “The Best Man Holiday” was even more inexplicable. The star-studded 2013 sequel earned more than $30 million in its opening weekend and numerous outlets referred to it as an “African American comedy” (or variations thereof) in breathless reports about how it exceeded projections. Director Malcolm D. Lee, who also wrote and directed the movie’s 1999 predecessor, hit back at critics who used the most simplistic descriptions of his film. “There is nothing urban about my movie,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Seventy-five percent of it takes place in a mansion in the suburbs.”
It’s a given that studios will market movies to specific groups. “If you have a black romantic comedy, your target audience is going to be black folks,” veteran producer Stephanie Allain said in an interview. Ultimately, the hope is that films will appeal to multiple demographics, and the date-night crowd tends to lend crossover appeal to romantic comedies, Allain said.
Among her own rom-com credits, Allain produced the 2006 film “Something New,” which explored interracial dating from the perspective of a black woman, with Lathan opposite Simon Baker.
Allain, who called the movie “a little ahead of its time,” said writer Kriss Turner was shocked by an article that reported a large percentage of black women never marry. The film’s interracial romance resonated with Allain, whose ex-husband is white, but she also related to the struggles that Lathan’s character confronted as a successful black woman. Allain is currently working on Netflix’s forthcoming adaptation of “Dear White People” (she also produced the 2014 critically acclaimed film).
Meanwhile, Elliot has been focused on expanding Hammer & Nails, the men’s grooming salon he opened last year in Los Angeles. He calls himself “semiretired” from screenwriting, but he still considers himself a film buff and laments the dearth of great black romantic comedies in recent years. He thinks more strides have been made in the romantic-drama films, citing 2014’s “Beyond the Lights” (from “Love & Basketball” director Gina Prince-Bythewood) as one of his favorites.
But Elliot thinks the time is right for someone to make another great black romantic comedy. He points to television’s increasing diversity as an example. Incidentally, he said he’s currently in talks with BET to develop a series.